You’re tucked in. You’re nice and comfortable. You’re about to drift off to sleep… and then it happens.
You get a leg cramp, and you’re jolted wide awake.
If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. Nighttime leg cramps are a common issue that many people live with.
Below, we’ll cover what you need to understand about leg cramps, including how to prevent them for a good night’s sleep.
What Are Nighttime Leg Cramps?
Nighttime leg cramps are a unique type of cramp that occurs at night. Many people who don’t regularly experience leg cramps throughout any part of their day will find that their legs begin to cramp up only when they lie down to go to sleep.
These cramps often affect the calf muscle, which makes some people refer to them as “charley horse” cramps. The muscle contracts suddenly and independently, leading to a painfully tight feeling that lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes.
People often find it uncomfortable to attempt to walk with leg cramps. Attempting to relax enough to get some sleep often feels out of the question until the cramps pass. If the cramps recur throughout the night, they can significantly disrupt sleep.
What Causes Nighttime Leg Cramps?
Leg cramps tend to be more common in older adults, but they can happen at any age. There’s also no single cause for nighttime leg cramps; rather, there are myriad reasons you could be experiencing pain and tightness in your calf muscles.
Nighttime leg cramps by themselves aren’t recognized as a standalone medical condition. They’re usually a symptom of something else or a natural reaction of the body. That said, let’s dive into some of the more common causes of nocturnal leg cramps.
Overuse of Muscles
Frequent exercise, long periods of intense physical activity, and even standing all day at a job put a lot of strain on your muscles. Your muscles need adequate time to recover after they’ve been used for prolonged periods of time.
You may experience aches, pains, or overuse injuries if you don’t allow your muscles enough time to rest. Staying off your feet when possible and reducing the frequency of your exercise can reduce the potential for muscular cramps all throughout your body.
Nighttime leg cramps are common during pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, your body changes the way blood flows. In some cases, this can lead to hindered circulation and cramping in your legs.
Pregnant women should note that these are different from traditional nocturnal leg cramps. Your doctor may recommend certain supplements or therapies that can help to reduce the frequency of cramps throughout your pregnancy.
Muscles are highly prone to cramping when your body is dehydrated. This dehydration can occur in a number of ways. Forgetting to drink enough water, using diuretics (also known as water pills), and drinking alcohol can all contribute to dehydration.
Medication Side Effects
Some steroids, diuretic medications, and mental health medications like antidepressants or mood stabilizers list nighttime leg cramps as a potential side effect.
If you’re currently taking medications that may be contributing to nighttime leg cramps, make sure to raise the issue with your doctor. Your doctor might recommend switching or adjusting medications if cramps in your leg muscles are causing you a lot of trouble.
There are so many different causes of leg cramps that it can be difficult to pinpoint the culprit. Some additional risk factors for leg cramps can include high blood pressure and cholesterol (sometimes treated with statins) and motor nerve damage.
It may seem strange, but internal organs that aren’t close to the affected leg can still be responsible for uncomfortable cramps. Health conditions like kidney disease and associated peripheral neuropathy, for instance, can lead to pain and cramping in the leg muscles. Similarly, cirrhosis and thyroid problems can both be a cause of nighttime leg cramps.
Beyond that, there are neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease that may affect muscle function and lead to leg spasms and cramping. Cramping may even be a side effect of the stiffness and limited mobility that comes from conditions like osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis.
What Is the Difference Between Nighttime Leg Cramps and Restless Leg Syndrome?
Unlike nocturnal leg cramps, which can be the result of numerous things, restless leg syndrome is recognized as a unique medical condition.
Restless leg syndrome is much more complex than simple leg cramps at nighttime. Many people with RLS feel uncomfortable, persistent sensations in their legs that are only alleviated with movement. The constant urge to move inhibits their ability to relax.
Should I See My Doctor About Nighttime Leg Cramps?
If you can easily correlate your leg cramps to low water intake or heavy athletic activity, first make sure you get sufficient rest and drink plenty of fluids. These remedies will likely help your leg cramps fade over the course of a few days.
However, you should see your doctor about nighttime leg cramps if they occur frequently and don’t have an apparent cause.
Additionally, if you believe your nocturnal leg cramps may actually be restless leg syndrome, you should see a healthcare professional. In some cases, doctors will recommend medication for people experiencing severe restless leg syndrome.
How To Prevent Nighttime Leg Cramps
If you’re experiencing run-of-the-mill nighttime leg cramps, there are a few things you can do to ease your cramps and reduce their frequency. For the most holistic care, try a little bit of everything.
1. Stretch Before Bed
Stretching helps to release tension in muscles and promote circulation. You can stretch however you’d like, though we’d especially recommend calf stretching if you suffer from the charley horse type of nighttime leg cramps.
Many people feel that yoga is a great pre-bedtime stretching routine. Yoga encourages the practice of mindfulness and relaxation, and it might just give you the reduced muscular tension and clear mind you need for good sleep.
2. Prioritize the Health of Your Muscles
If your muscles are cramping, they’re probably trying to tell you something. They could be asking for more rest, particularly if you’ve been active or on your feet a lot more than usual.
They could also be asking for more protein-rich foods to help repair themselves. Or they might need more calcium, which muscles use to facilitate communication with your nervous system.
A well-balanced diet rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals will keep your muscles healthy and improve their ability to recover. Combining a well-balanced diet with an appropriate amount of exercise is important for your overall health, as long as you give your muscles enough time to rest.
3. Take a Warm Bath
Warmth helps to relieve muscle cramps. A warm bath can help to ease sore muscles throughout your body and promote relaxation — especially when combined with Epsom salts to leave you feeling at ease.
4. Utilize Massage Therapy
If your muscles need a little help healing, you might try massage therapy. You’ll want to tell your massage therapist about the circumstances of your leg cramps, your cardiovascular health, and your level of physical activity. Your massage therapist will also want to know if you have a history of injury relating to your calf muscles.
Your massage therapist will choose an appropriate massage technique to promote better circulation, lymphatic drainage, and tissue healing throughout your legs.
You’ll probably need more than one massage to maximize the benefits, especially if you’re prone to leg cramps. Follow your massage therapist’s suggested schedule.
5. Stay Hydrated
Your body is mostly water. Every organ, muscle, and piece of tissue in your body requires water to properly function — so if you’re dehydrated, your muscles are likely to feel sore.
If you’ve been sweating a lot, exercising a lot, or simply neglecting your minimum water intake for the day, you’ll need to make an effort to stay hydrated.
In addition to water, your body needs electrolytes like potassium and magnesium to help regulate your hydration. Magnesium in particular has been correlated with a reduction in muscle cramps and spasms.
Before you start supplements, talk to your doctor about what you need. Sometimes, a change of diet that prioritizes nutrient-rich foods is a better solution than over-the-counter mineral supplements.
6. Try Topical Products
Over-the-counter oral painkillers like ibuprofen and naproxen won’t make leg cramps vanish immediately. And, while research suggests that newer prescription medications like diltiazem may help prevent nocturnal leg cramps, the FDA notes that older remedies like quinine have been associated with serious health risks.
Luckily, there are plenty of topical muscle rubs that can provide on-the-spot relief to cramping muscles. These creams often contain natural ingredients like menthol or capsaicin to provide relief for leg pain.
Combining these creams with a light massage of the affected muscle can help promote relief for achy muscles. Just make sure you follow the instructions for your topical products and keep them away from broken skin.
Getting Better Sleep When You Have Leg Cramps
The best ways to avoid nocturnal leg cramps involve relaxing and eliminating tension from your muscles. If you feel most at ease when you’re all swaddled up, try the Hug Sleep Pod.
The Hug Sleep Pod is based on the same principles as deep touch pressure therapy (DTPT). Some people feel a profound sense of relaxation in a firm embrace, and the Sleep Pod provides you with this kind of embrace all night long.
When you snuggle into your Sleep Pod, it creates gentle four-way compression over your whole body. The fabric is lightweight and breathable, so it won’t feel stuffy inside.
With your problem muscles stretched and at ease, our all-over hug can help you stay relaxed all night long.